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Interview with Founder of Hey Auntie! – Nicole E. Kenney, MPP

Photo provided by Nicole E. Kenney

Aunties play an important role in the Black community. She doesn’t have to be your biological aunt. She can be any woman in your life that plays the figure of someone you respect and admire. Auntie will share her wisdom with you. You can have some real talk with her and get some good sound advice. She will not tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. She tells it like it is, but it’s all done in love. She is encouraging and motivates you to pick yourself up after falling down. Auntie represents wisdom, guidance, and love.  Personally experiencing the importance of an auntie’s influence while also seeing a need, Nicole E. Kenney, MPP, founded a digital wellness platform and community connecting Black women across ages and life stages called Hey Auntie! 

You were awarded $50K in the Well City Challenge which is an initiative focused on community solutions for mind and heart health. Share more about that process and how did it help kick start Hey Auntie!?

I was the first winner in 2021. The Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, an economic development organization, partnered with Independence Blue Cross. They were looking for innovative community-based solutions particularly to address Millenial’s mental health. They had just finished a report looking at health trends. Normally, the generation coming behind the previous one should be doing better due to technology, resources, and those different things. They actually saw the reverse. Millennial’s mental health was faring worse than Gen Xers and they wanted to focus on community-based support on how to address these deeply concerning trends.

 I have been doing social impact entrepreneurship work for the past seven years. I have been deeply involved in improving the racial gender and economic outcomes of Black folks pretty much all of my career and it has been my focus. When HeyAuntie! came about I was really trying to understand how to improve the racial and gender economic equity of Black women specifically because of my own lived experience. I experienced really bad stress that led to a health scare. Also realizing that Black women face unique challenges and a lack of safety and a lack of asking for help. If it wasn’t for my family, church community, friends, and auntie, I don’t think I would have gotten the support needed. 

Why was it so important for you to create this online community/ platform for Black women? 

A friend of mine invited me to attend a tech conference for Black technologists. It was great seeing Black women use technology to solve social problems. I had no background in technology prior to then. Up until that point, I had just known policy and non-profit work. What excited me about the technology was the scalability and the ability to be able to reach multiple women. I created this platform because I knew this was a service that needed a lot of use. Sometimes when doing programmatic work you can only serve so many people because you are in a physical space. This role of the auntie has sustained Black women since we were brought here across generations. I wanted to reimagine a system that works and shows a lot of value in protecting Black women’s mental health.

How has the platform grown since its beginning and what have been some challenges/lessons learned along the way? 

We are celebrating two years on July 7th. It is also a special day because it’s my birthday. I actually won the competition on my birthday. It’s been a wild ride overall, one that I’m super grateful for. At Hey Auntie! we are deliberately taking a hyper-local approach. We want you to feel connected both online and offline. We have a global community and have women represented in North Carolina and on the west coast. We have women joining from London and Africa. I’m really proud of the age diversity. We spell Auntie two ways. Auntie and Auntee. Auntie(ie) is a woman that has more experience and is a little more seasoned in navigating a specific milestone, and an Aunt(ee) is a woman that may be earlier in that same journey. 

I was surprised at the number of women over fifty that have been joining. It has been very eye-opening to learn that they are at a critical point in life where they are still also learning and growing. I hear a lot of Aunties say at times they need an Auntie. It could be empty nesting, retirement, the loss of a partner, or starting a business. The element of community is important in the different seasons of life and every part of it. 

I have learned that everyone pursues connecting differently. We are looking at four ways to connect. The first way is Lelah’s Corner. Lelah was my great auntie. These are small groups of about four to six women that meet once a month to discuss a topic. It is a way to establish trust between generations and begin to hear women that may be engaging in the same topic but at a different age. We are about to launch The Porch. This will be our larger gatherings in person and digitally. Some women are not ready to talk yet and just want to listen. This is more of an instructional format with workshops. 

We have Community Aunties that are piloting in Philly. It’s when Auntie’s come together and support an organization that is doing important work in the community but needs more manpower. I’m so excited to start launching Auntie by Auntee. That is our matching one to one program. This is for women that are looking for that direct connection with an Auntie. Right now we are testing out that experience. 

What I have learned over the two years is how to fail and test. As a recovering perfectionist, you want everything to be perfect off the bat, and that hinders me from progressing. I have learned to try things out and be open to feedback and lean into community support.

What has been most rewarding about the work you do with HeyAuntie!? Please also share a success story. 

Having a global community has been pretty incredible. When I started seeing women from Africa and London I was like wow, women have been responding. I love when we have an event and the women feel seen and supported. They have an aha moment. Isolation is real and not having that safe space, especially for Black women is real. Being able to create an environment where we can just relax and share. The work is hard, but it never gets old. 

Also, having a Ted EX Talk and talking about the cultural legacy of Black aunties has been a huge success. Being featured in business publications such as Fortune was also huge. I feel like the attention on us as Black women is always so negative. I am really on a mission to reimagine a system that has the potential to transform our health and well-being. 

What’s in the future for Hey Auntie!?   

Right now we are focusing on the community-building piece and looking for different ways Black women can connect and how we can support them. I definitely see Hey Auntie! being at an enterprise level by serving top companies and being a well-being resource in the workplace. I see cultural competency training in the workplace and in the healthcare system as a resource for those dealing with a diagnosis or just feedback from other women and talk to those who experienced similar challenges. My goal as someone with a policy background, is to be able to see systems changed. Whether we are talking about pay equity, protection for mothers and children, or anti-violence policies, I want to see policy change as well. 

To learn more about Nicole and the great work she is doing with Hey Auntie! visit https://www.heyauntie.io/.

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